Following a gathering hosted by the Minister for Parks and Open Spaces to discuss steps to make our public spaces cleaner, safer and greener, I stepped out of the ODPM offices at 26 Whitehall, and immediately thought, this street sums up much of what the discussion had been searching for. Namely, that given the right forethought and aftercare, streets and spaces can cater for a bewildering array of overlapping and conflicting functions, and still be highly liveable places.
Of course few streets are like Whitehall, and neither would we want them to be. This is a very particular street in the heart of London dominated by architectural monuments to past glories and by the government machine of today. Nevertheless, its obvious advantages are multiplied by the absence of road signs and lights; the lack of barriers for herding pedestrians; the absence of rubbish and graffiti; by the high quality paving underfoot and high quality architecture (some contemporary) around; through the trees and greenery that soften the scene; by public art (broadly defined); most of all by the many pedestrians, some (mainly tourists) sauntering along and enjoying the scene, others (no doubt civil servants) hurrying between meetings; in the people resting and enjoying the spring sunshine, a few on walls or outside the occasional pub; and by busses, cars and taxis (in large numbers) slowly making their away along the road.
No doubt Whitehall is lavished with resources just not available elsewhere, but a short walk along to the disaster that is Parliament Square shows that resources are clearly not everything. ‘Great streets’ (as Allan Jacobs described them) aside, the amazing thing is how many functions your average street can cope with and still operate successfully. Take my local high street, it is at one and the same time:
- retail destination
- venue for the local market
- for some, place of work and/or home
- pedestrian thoroughfare
- traffic artery
- public transport artery
- venue for special events such as the annual London Marathon
- place of relaxation and leisure
- place to meet and congregate
- place for parking, loading and unloading
- gateway to the private realms of the buildings along its edges
- place of social interaction
- service artery (gas, water, electric, telephone and cable)
- place of learning and play
- venue for eating and drinking
- hang out for smokers
- container for trees and soft landscape
- source of information (signs and advertisements)
- source of communication (post and call boxes)
- container of public art and display (i.e. hanging baskets)
- space to service buildings
- a break for light, sun and fresh air.
All this (and more) in one relatively modest and unassuming public space, and all existing side by side and still functioning in spite of what seems to be our best efforts to undermine it through the combined onslaught of highways and land use planning. Of course this grossly simplifies the case as behind every decision to build a new out of town supermarket, or to reduce the pavement size to increase the space for more congestion, is a welter of constrains, compromises and conundrums that we seem to find so hard to successfully negotiate. Too often, it seems, the last thing on our list is the first thing that we all miss – the quality of local place as encompassed in our everyday public spaces.
So what do we need to do? The planning system is only a part-player in the creation, and perhaps more importantly, the ongoing stewardship of public space, and therefore action is needed at a multiple of national and local levels to bring the different players together. Here are ten ideas:
- We need to demonstrate the value added by high quality public space – socially, economically and environmentally, time and time again
- There should be a statutory responsibility on local authorities to provide for the stewardship and enhancement of public space
- We need to break free from short-term financial planning and funding streams and secure long-term and sustained investment directed at enhancing public space
- We also need to be able to plan over the long-term for public space, just as we do for our urban areas, perhaps through public space plans as part of the emerging LDFs
- Public space plans should be both strategic (i.e. establishing a network of public space), and local (i.e. coordinating processes and responsibilities for its management)
- Where possible, communities should be given direct responsibility for their streets and public spaces
- Planners and public space managers need to be advocates for high quality public space both internally within their organisations and externally to the community
- Management and maintenance tasks need to be seen as vital contributions to a civilised society with a status in local authorities and skilled staff base to match
- At least one cabinet member in each local authority should have a dedicated public space portfolio
- A Directorate of Public Space in every local authority is needed as a one-stop-shop to integrate the diversity of contributions to public space management.
Underpinning each should be an overarching objective, that quality should be the fundamental objective of every intervention that impacts on public space and of every stakeholder involved in its delivery.
Reader in Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL